WILMINGTON — A runner from New Hampshire is driving to Wilmington and will take part in the Little Hearts Big Smiles annual 5K run and walk Saturday.
But the real magnet that explains the long drive is not the race itself. For the first time, runner Liz McGovern will meet the little girl she’s been paired with since March 2015 in the international “I Run 4 Michael” program.
The “I Run 4 Michael” organization matches athletes of all levels and types — runners, walkers, triathletes and more — with children and adults who have physical, mental or developmental special needs. The website says the nonprofit wants “to see runners and buddies alike experience the profound power of encouraging and being supported by people who were once perfect strangers.”
McGovern runs for Abby Achtermann, a daughter of Brent and Brooke Achtermann of Wilmington.
Shortly after her birth, Abby was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition labeled “18q deletion and trisomy 9”. Abby will be 2 in August and has undergone multiple surgeries and therapies.
Mother Brooke first heard of the “I Run 4 Michael” program through special needs parenting groups on Facebook.
There are two sign-up lists, one for the special needs individuals and one for athletes.
“While it took Abby only two weeks to be matched with Liz, Liz was on the list for six months waiting for a buddy,” said Mrs. Achtermann.
Those who have been paired are then accepted to a private Facebook group, where the athlete and their buddy — or the buddy’s family as in young Abby’s case — post updates and share kind messages to each other, Mrs. Achtermann said.
“You also get to see many other inspiring individuals as they share their journey, too,” she added.
“Once Abby was paired with Liz I reached out to introduce her and let Liz know all about the wonderful person Abby is and the obstacles she will face and what she has overcome. Having Liz as Abby’s buddy has been an amazing experience,” said Mrs. Achtermann.
McGovern wrote in an email, “Having Abby as a running buddy has been incredibly inspiring for me. Getting to know the Achtermanns and Abby has changed my life. Not only does being her buddy motivate me to run, work out and push myself, but she is a constant reminder to me about how important it is to be grateful for my ability to do all those things.
“It’s such a positive experience all around. I look forward to watching Abby grow,” she added.
However, she did have some self-doubts about whether she’d be a good running buddy a week before she was matched.
“I’m not overly fast so I don’t win a lot of medals and I didn’t want to be letting anyone down by not being able to do that. But I quickly pushed the thought of not joining out of my head and I’m so glad that I did,” stated McGovern.
“I learned it’s not about being fast or how many medals you can send your buddy. It’s about being there, doing your runs, doing your workouts and dedicating those to your buddy,” she said.
Reach Gary Huffenberger at 937-556-5768 or on Twitter @GHuffenberger.